Working Parents: How to make a nanny agency work for you

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The Independent Culture
Agencies charge a hefty fee - so make sure you choose a good one. Amanda Suttie offers expert advice.

Word of mouth, or an advertisement in The Lady or Nursery World magazines are two ways to find a nanny. But dealing with the replies can be time-consuming, and prospective employers who may be used to interviewing and engaging staff at work may feel they lack the skills to find a good, professional nanny. The Louise Woodward case and the recent television programme, Nannies from Hell, may have undermined their confidence. So it's hardly surprising that many working parents use agencies. But how to tell if it's the right approach for you?

Although it's possible to find good nannies through advertisements, time can be all-important. If you're unlucky, no one replies - or leaves messages on the answering machine - so you may be a prisoner at home. Say you invite three nannies for interview: the first does not arrive; the second is unsuitable; by the time the third walks in through the door, you're so desperate, you'll have her whatever she's like. She accepts. Other nannies ring, but you tell them the vacancy is filled. Then the new nanny says she doesn't want the job after all. You haven't kept details of other applicants, and have to start all over again.

Expert advice doesn't come cheap. Agencies usually charge the equivalent of a month's salary for finding a nanny. Rates for smaller, or provincial offices are lower, but expect to pay agency fees of around pounds 800-pounds 1200 in central London.

How can you tell that your money is wisely spent? Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations and contact the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services (FRES) at 36/38 Mortimer Street, London WIN 7RB (0171-323 4300, Fax: 0171-255 2878) for a list of member agencies. FRES agencies work to a code of practice and though some agencies (who may offer a good service) are not members, it is a good starting-point. There is no official "nanny register", so unsuitable nannies often continue to practise. Even using an agency is no guarantee of success.

There are things you can check up on, however, such as the agency's policy on interviewing, and checking credentials. When I ran an agency, many nannies were surprised that I wanted to interview them. Time and again I missed placing a good nanny because she had already been given the same job by another agency she had registered with, but who had never met her. Nannies were also surprised that I checked references and qualifications; clearly not all agencies did.

Less scrupulous agencies do cut corners. Employers may wonder what they are paying a fee for. Agencies have no magic formula, but the professional service and experience of a good agency give you the best chance of making sure you leave your child in safe hands.

Questions to ask an agency

Do they:

l Interview all prospective nannies in person?

l Check all references, confirm that nannies are qualified if they claim to be, and explain any gaps in their employment?

l Give detailed information about the nanny and make sure she matches your requirements?

l Give you confidence that they are striving to find you the right nanny?

l Come up with suitable candidates within a reasonable time, or explain why not?

l Give advice on duties, salaries, free time and holidays, sickness benefit, contracts of employment, insurance and your legal responsibilities?

l Give advice on interviewing?

l Contact you after you have interviewed a nanny, to discuss her suitability?

l Keep in contact once you are suited, and offer an "after sales service" to check the arrangement is working well, and deal with any problems that may have arisen?

Amanda Suttie ran the Canonbury Nannies Agency in north London from 1984 to 1996.

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